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Canadian soccer heats up in unlikely locations

07/12/2013, 6:15pm CDT
By Ryan Lund

A red-clad player stakes out his claim alongside the net while his teammates buzz, jockeying for position as the action begins to heat up.

The action is frenetic; the pace is quick, each player holding his own as the action moves closer to the goal.

Finally, from the perimeter, the shot comes in, before a quick save sends it back out.  The Canadians however, are there to finish it off, putting the Yukon Strikers on the board with an impressive tally.

Teammates from the Yukon Strikers get ready for their game. When the game is growing in unlikely places like Whitehorse, Yukon, Canadian soccer is worth watching.

It’s a common scene across Canada these days, as young athletes from across the country spend their days threading passes and scoring goals.

Instead of idolizing Sidney Crosby however, these kids are looking a bit further for their motivation.  Lionel Messi, it would seem, might be more appropriate.

Because this isn’t hockey, this is Canadian soccer.

“I think it’s sort of a great myth that Canada isn’t a soccer nation,” said Arnold Hedstrom, assistant coach of the Yukon Strikers U19 boys team.  “Right now, because we’ve had such a large number of immigrants come to the country over the decades, Canada really is becoming a soccer country.”

And if it’s growing in unlikely locations like Whitehorse, Yukon, where the average high temperature in January is -13F and the population just 25,000, the world might want to pay attention to Canadian soccer in the future.

Since 2008, enrollment in Canadian soccer has outpaced that of hockey by a factor of almost two to one.  Hedstrom attributes much of this growth to the easy accessibility of the global game.

“It’s a big sport and it’s a popular sport,” he said.  “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get into the sport.”

Hedstrom also notes that Canadian soccer has seen tremendous growth thanks to the success of the women’s national team, which brought home a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

The medal, Canada’s first in a traditional team sport at the summer games since the men’s basketball team brought home silver in 1936, may be a sign of things to come for a nation widely viewed as hockey-centric, as Canada’s sports scene begins to diversify.

“There’s a lot of inspiration going on right now,” said Hedstrom.

The increasing diversity of Canada’s youth soccer programs is particularly evident in Yukon head coach Victor Lavauderos, who came to Canada from Chile over 20 years ago, bringing a passion for soccer along with him.

Lavauderos lived in Montreal for 15 years, before moving west to the little community of Whitehorse, home of the Yukon Strikers, helping to build a strong soccer program despite the city’s status as a decidedly non-traditional soccer market.

Victor has watched soccer develop throughout Canada, and has seen the game take on a life of its own across the country.

“It’s weird because, in Vancouver they play differently; in Toronto it’s very physical, in Montreal it’s very technical,” he said.  “It’s different; each city is different.”

Bringing the world’s game to the great white north however, hasn’t been without its challenges.

Whitehorse is the capitol of Yukon, Canada’s smallest and most western territory, and has a climate quite different than that of Blaine, Minnesota.

“(At USA CUP) It’s a challenge just keeping the girls hydrated,” said U19 girls team manager Leslie Gomm.  “Two years ago we had a few girls who sort of succumbed to the heat.  It’s hard; we’re just not used to it at all.”

Playing in such a far-flung location has its positives, however.

“We play a lot of indoor soccer, and I think it gets players thinking about timing,” said Hedstrom.  “They get very technical and very good with their feet because they’re used to working in small spaces.”

Hedstrom and Gomm estimate that teams from Whitehorse play about 50 percent of their time playing indoor soccer, a fact that doesn’t seem to be hindering their game on the opening day of Schwan’s USA CUP.

At game time in Whitehorse, Yukon the temperature stood at 60 degrees. In Blaine it was in the high 80’s. In their first game of USA CUP, the Yukon Strikers fell to the Elgin Pumas of Illinois 2-1. Even in defeat, the Yukon side held their own against one of the strongest teams in the U19 division, a sure sign that Canadian soccer is heating up.

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Tag(s): July 12, 2013